Being seen: re-humanizing aging

NPR this morning had a story about the overmedication of older people living in nursing homes, a scary but evidently not uncommon practice called “chemical restraint” in which antipsychotic drugs are used to pacify people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As you might expect, the drugs are not approved for such use and are recommended by doctors who do so without getting informed consent from the patient.

Terrifying, at least for people like me who worry about what is going to happen to them when they get older. The rush of fear is provoked by the prospect of one’s irrelevance in later life, passed over and forgotten, left to watch television for weeks on end before a familiar face arrives. (At least this is the form my fear takes.) The reality is, we’re terribly unprepared for the process of aging that is unavoidable in our own bodies, which occurs regardless of how many step classes we’ve taken or marathons run in our younger years.

478px-Elderly_Woman_,_B&W_image_by_Chalmers_Butterfield

In part I think this is due to our cultural (and perhaps global) obsession with the tightness, the health, the desirability of youth. We stare at 18-year-olds who casually bike by in short shorts; we gawk at how flat a model’s tummy is; we buy Spanx and breast-lifting bras and juice cleanses and hair dyes. (Yes, this is a gendered conversation, for the moment. But men have similar concerns.) We seek to abolish all semblances of weight or age that put us a day or a pound over our stats at senior prom, for we will one day become less desirable. Less see-able.

We veil our fear in envy; the reality is, we think we’re melting off the planet by fleeting degrees in the form of wrinkles, questionable blood tests. But this wouldn’t be so in a culture that didn’t over-sexualize youth and under-vitalize people above the age of 40. We would see it as normal to have our doctor tell us we need to follow up on a procedure, because it would be acceptable, even natural and – dare we imagine it? – beautiful, rather than fear-producing, that we’re getting older. Not erased slowly, but made slowly.

Instead, we, in a society obsessed with being seen (think Facebook, blogs like this, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and so on), quail at the notion of fading away, and so we hold on, and share more, and expose more. At least, that is, the images and versions that are the most youthful, the least cranky or puffy or un-made-up. Swiping through to find that one really good one that makes us look 5-10 years younger.

And the circle turns back again. 20- and 30-somethings are given to think they are the focal point, the place of timelessness, the image we all crave. And so they are; social media and popular entertainment confirm that. But what if we chose to see people of all ages as valid, real, seen, rather than dehumanized versions of themselves once they become a liability – “too much of a handful” – to their families? What if we stopped the march of images as a basis for unreal comparison and started seeing the people around us, and ourselves, as perfect, real, slightly less-than-perfect, and even better for it? What would this do to elder care, and health care in general?

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